In the past several years, multinational corporations have heavily marketed the idea that lighter skin leads to more prosperity. As a result, dangerous skin bleaching has become a public health crisis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In response, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) recently passed a resolution recommending a regional ban on cosmetics with hydroquinone, a skin-bleaching agent — a ban that looks likely to pass. Several countries, including Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan, have also banned bleaching cosmetics in recent months.
Despite these warnings and bans, the skin-whitening industry has experienced phenomenal growth in parts of Asia and Africa in recent years. A WHO report found that nearly 77 percent of Nigerian women reported using skin-lightening products regularly. In India, 61 percent of the skin-care market consisted of skin-lightening products. Analysts project still more growth in years to come. However, in my research on the cosmetic industry’s global colorism marketing, I found that banning bleaching agents is counterproductive and might exacerbate the crisis, as I explain below.
Multinational brands dominate growth in the skin-whitening industry
Market research shows continued, exponential growth in the global market for skin-whitening products. One forecast projects the industry to reach about $24 billion in value by 2027. Another puts the figure at $31.2 billion by the year 2024. Multinational brands Unilever, Beiersdorf and L’Oreal are the three dominant players in this industry globally. In India and Nigeria, the two country case studies in my chapter in the book “Race in the Marketplace,” Unilever and Beiersdorf have the largest market shares respectively. The dominance of multinational corporations in the industry is creating a new dynamic in colorism, the preference for lighter skin tones even among nonwhite majority populations. Their marketing is amplifying colonial-era associations of power and privilege with white skin already embedded in parts of Asia and Africa.
Attempting to cash in on a growing, aspirational middle-class consumer base in these regions, companies use advertising to link lighter skin with perceptions of not just beauty but also socioeconomic mobility.
In the early 2000s, Unilever began airing what became a notorious commercial for its Fair and Lovely whitening cream on Indian television. In the ad, a dark-skinned daughter hears her father lament the family’s low economic status. After she starts to use Fair and Lovely, her skin becomes visibly lighter, she lands a higher-paid job as a flight attendant, and the family’s circumstances improve. This commercial marked a more aggressive era in the marketing of colorism. While in the past, skin-whitening products alluded vaguely to white as a beauty ideal, the newer marketing strategies directly underscored the economic and social mobility associated with whiteness and explicitly linked darker skin to socioeconomic stagnation.
There is also an emphasis on global imagery such as Western-style clothes, images of international airports and international beauty pageant contestants. A 2017 Nigerian Beiersdorf commercial featured a scene in which the black skin of Miss Nigeria Omowunmi Akinnifesi turned practically white as she applied the Nivea Natural Fairness moisturizer.
Those who can’t afford the expensive cosmetics use cheaper bleaches
This new global marketing has created a segmentation or a split in the industry. While multinational brands target the middle class and link skin tones to economic success, low-income, working-class consumers who are priced out of the higher-end branded products have sought out cheaper, local products with harmful bleaching agents such as hydroquinone.
Multinational companies responded to bans on bleaching by creating a distinction between harmful bleaching and so-called natural whitening products. Beiersdorf’s Nivea Natural Fairness cream touts the use of berry extracts that supposedly reduce overactive melanin without the use of bleaching agents. Unilever, which makes Fair and Lovely along with Pond’s, claims the melanin-reducing benefits of its patented version of Vitamin B3 work without bleaching. L’Oreal similarly claims its White Perfect range of products “unload excess melanin” with a special ingredient called Melanin-Vanish.
This segmenting of the market into the old bleaching products and the new “natural,” “scientific” and “melanin-controlling” global brands has resulted in a dual market where those who cannot afford the branded products but want to see similar results buy more unsafe bleaching products illegally. Government bans on harsh bleaching ingredients have only resulted in a thriving black market in countries such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Individuals discount the cost to their health when compared with the perceived cost of lost opportunities for social mobility and global reach promoted aggressively by multinational brands.
Moreover, advertising that casts melanin as a kind of abnormality that needs to be controlled normalizes skin lightening, which encourages bleaching.
Bans on bleaching agents in individual countries or regions are likely to be ineffective as long as multinational corporations continue to aggressively market globalized, whiteness-based notions of beauty and social mobility. At times, local groups push back. Women’s groups protested the Fair and Lovely commercial, which the company eventually withdrew. But subsequent ads have continued to show lighter skin as leading to socioeconomic mobility and success. Similarly, many Nigerians and others in the region protested the Nivea commercial; the company withdrew the ad in Ghana.
Nevertheless, these companies continue to use imagery and vocabulary about whitening, fairness and skin brightening that would be unacceptable in the Western markets where these companies are headquartered. Without coordinated global effort against multinationals’ colorist advertising, including social media and other consumer activism, bans alone are likely to remain ineffective.
Ramya M. Vijaya is a professor of economics at Stockton University and co-author of “Indian Immigrant Women and Work” (Routledge, 2017) and “Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).